Fire unions target private EMS firms to pad pensions

KHETRAN

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California’s cities and counties are awash in pension debt, as skyrocketing retirement costs for public employees consume a larger share of their budgets and mandate the cutbacks in community services. One of the biggest cost-drivers is firefighting given that local firefighters receive average compensation packages that top $200,000 annually.

In a sensibly governed state, lawmakers would be pursuing ways to trim those costs by embracing competitive models. In California, however, the public-employee unions are pushing legislators in the opposite direction by giving unions a tighter grip over these services.

This editorial board has previously applauded efforts by cities such as Calimesa and Placentia to create their own fire departments in order to rein in pension costs and improve response times. In response, lawmakers passed a law that essentially forbids other cities from following suit because this local reform reduced firefighter pensions.

As the costs of firefighting rises, localities have promoted a variety of tax-increasing measures, including sales-tax hikes and first-responder fees. Yet, it never is enough. The Legislature now is moving legislation (Assembly Bill 389) that would give union-controlled firefighting agencies total control over Emergency Medical System agencies.

Supporters refer to it as the Alliance Model, but it’s not as benign as its name suggests. As the bill’s author explained in the Assembly analysis, the legislation “guarantees that counties can continue to utilize proven effective subcontracting partnerships and allow counties to utilize similar subcontracting systems in the future.”

In reality, the measure is an attempt to grab more money and reduce competition. It’s an effort to significantly limit private ambulance competition, which has kept down the costs of these services and assured a high level of service for people in vulnerable situations.

By granting fire districts control, it would allow fire agencies to “choose whatever partner benefits the fire department the most, not necessarily the local governments themselves or taxpayers – in a subcontracting decision not subject to competitive bidding,” explained Austill Stuart of the libertarian Reason Foundation.

Fire agencies would be able to “squeeze revenues from ambulance providers,” he noted, and “keep much of the excess revenues.” This would reduce the number of private competitors and the wages of ambulance employees, which explains why the union representing those workers opposes the bill.

Sure, the agencies will gain more money to fund their unsustainable pension promises, but the reduced competition will drive up costs for taxpayers and their insurers. It will erode service quality. Ambulance services are too important to use as a cash cow to backfill firefighter pensions.

It’s just wrong to put union priorities above the public’s need for quality EMS services, yet the legislation, which is now in the Senate, passed the Assembly Health Committee and the floor without a single “no” vote. That’s shameful.

“Fire departments have a huge problem on their hands when it comes to their pension obligations, and the only solution their unions can seem to come up with is attacking the private ambulance providers who have loyally served Californians for generations,” argued Marcia Fritz, president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility.

Once again, the Legislature has put the demands of special interests above the needs of the public. If Assembly Bill 389 becomes law, costs will rise and the push for revenue will continue.

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